One of the Ten Commandments, preserved both in Exodus 20:14 (E) and Deuteronomy 5:17, is the prohibition against adultery: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
But we actually have to wait until later textual traditions clarify what the punishment of this crime is. Here is what Deuteronomy and Leviticus have to say about the matter.
If a man be found lying with a woman who is a husband’s wife, then the two of them shall die: the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. (Deut 22:22)
A man who will commit adultery with a man’s wife, who will commit adultery with his neighbor’s wife, shall be put to death: the adulterer and the adulteress. (Lev 20:10)
Although these texts present the man as the initiator in the act, it nevertheless clearly stipulates that both the man (adulterer) and the woman, the wife of another (adulteress), are to be put to death. Period, no exception.
Yet Numbers 5:11-31, which is officially entitled “the instruction (torah) for jealousies,” states something else. Although the circumstances for this adultery are specific, it nonetheless leaves the woman alive, albeit now stricken with a curse of bareness.
The torah of jealousies details two jealousies:
- a woman, a man’s wife, who goes astray and sleeps with another man, but this act remains unknown, hidden; there are no witnesses
- a husband who suffers a spirit of jealousy over his wife, thinking that she has become impure, i.e., suspecting she has committed adultery
In both these cases, and since the alleged crime is unknown, the woman is brought to a priest who concocts a potion meant to uncover the adultery, or in the case of innocence uncover no act of adultery. The priest writes a curse on a piece of parchment which basically states that if the woman has committed adultery then her “womb shall swell and her thighs shall sag”—most likely a metaphor for bareness. The priest then dissolves the parchment with the curse on it in water, and the woman drinks the potion. If the woman has sworn by the curse, drinks it, and is in fact adulterous, then the curse becomes reality: “the woman will become a curse among her people.”
Although in this specific case the woman is the initiator of the adultery, she nevertheless gets off easy: bareness instead of death.
Curious, however, the last phrase of this passage—“she shall bear her crime”—might suggest that she is to be put to death, i.e., bearing the penalty of her adultery, which, according to all other traditions in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Ez 16:38) and even those of the New Testament (Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:5; Jn 8:4-11; Rev 21:8), is death. But it is curious that this is never explicitly stated in the passage, but rather that she “will become [remain?] a curse among the people.”
If the Old Testament punishment for adultery is death, then Jesus’ intensification of these Old Testament commandments in Matthew 5:18-48 leads to a startling conclusion. Matthew’s Jesus re-defines adultery as the act of just thinking about another woman!
“You have heard that it was said to those of old ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” (Matt 5:27-29)
What is implied in this excerpt, especially in verse 29, is that the Old Testament punishment for adultery, excepting Num 5, is still adhered to here in Matthew—death! Even though death is now re-envisioned and re-interpreted in light of a new doctrine that emerges in the second temple period—namely resurrection and an eternal post-mortem life—it is still nevertheless the punishment for adultery: permanent death, no post-mortem rebirth. The same conclusion can also be found in Paul (Gal 5:19-21) and the author of Revelation (21:8). And although John’s Jesus stops an adulteress from bearing her crime—death—the passage (Jn 8:4-11) remains silent on the other understanding of death, i.e., whether she is permanently dead at her death or resurrected. Furthermore, the passage does not negate the Old Testament punishment of death. It merely chases off the adulteress’ accusers—stating that no man condemns her. Perhaps then she becomes similar to the adulteress of Numbers 5?
At any event, and on the whole, both the Old and the New Testament deem death as the ultimate punishment for adultery—whether that means the putting to death of someone’s life or the permanent death of an individual in a post-mortem resurrection theology.